How Should Christians Respond to Heresy?

How Should Christians Respond to HeresyIn a culture that has a hard time accepting the notion there are objective, transcendent truths about the nature of God, it’s sometimes hard to take a stand for what we believe without offending someone. Non-Christians aren’t the only people who get offended. The cultural acceptance of relativism (and pluralism) has already impacted the Church dramatically. “Doctrine” has become a dirty word. Many current theologians and Christian writers reject the claim any established doctrine of Christianity is objectively true. These thinkers and church leaders have been profoundly affected by the culture around them; those who refuse to relinquish the orthodox teachings of Christianity are seen as rigid fundamentalists. Some “postmodern” theologians believe all classic Christian claims are now up for negotiation:

“…the doctrine of the Trinity is still on the table. Some people, it seems to me, would like for us to no longer debate certain ‘sacred’ doctrines — the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of scripture, the nature of marriage etc. And these persons tend to get very jumpy when emergent-types discuss these ‘sacrae doctrinae’, especially in books and at conferences that are being taped. ‘This is dangerous,’ they say. I say it’s dangerous to stop talking about these things, and it leads to a hegemony among those who already control the seminaries, colleges, magazines, radio stations, conferences, publishing houses, and magazines. We (Emergent Village) will continue to debate such things” (Tony Jones, from his Theoblogy Blog entry, “De Trinitate” – emphasis in the original).

It’s interesting to note the effort to seek and uphold the ancient, objective, Biblical truth is now seen as “hegemony” (the desire of those in authority to dominate and exercise control over others). The pursuit and defense of truth is now seen as oppressive, not only by unbelievers, but also by fellow believers. Christians today seem to have forgotten how important truth was to Jesus and to the first believers. Many current Christian teachers actually believe it is divisive for us to take a stand for truth at all, and they dislike being publicly rebuked for holding a position described as “un-Biblical”. But both John the Baptist and Jesus were quick to point out the false teaching of those around them, and they did so in a pointed and biting manner. Take for example, John’s public condemnation of the Pharisees on the shore of the Jordan River:

Matthew 3:7-9
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves,’ We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

John sounds pretty bold to me. He had no problem calling people out for their beliefs. Was he being Godly? Was He following a Biblical model? One thing is certain: he was behaving in a manner consistent with Jesus. Look at how Jesus addressed the same group:

Matthew 12:34
“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”

Both John and Jesus had no problem addressing false teaching and warning false teachers. Perhaps there is something we can learn about the importance of identifying what is true and addressing what is false:

We Should Call Out the Teacher By Name
We simply must identify those who are teaching error. Paul certainly had no problem doing this and he instructed those who followed him to do the very same thing. In these passages written to Timothy in Paul’s “pastoral” letter, Paul does not hesitate to name names. He publicly identifies false teachers and ungodly men so others can be warned:

2 Timothy 4:9-10
Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica

2 Timothy 1:15
You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.

1 Timothy 1:18-20
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.

We are called to (1) Identify false ideas, and (2) Publicly expose those who are either living by or teaching others these ideas.

We Should Describe the Teaching
We also need to be very articulate about what is false in the teaching of these false teachers. We need to take the time to describe the error. Paul also did this, even as he named the false teachers by name:

2 Timothy 2:16-18
But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some.

We are called to (1) Know the truth well enough to see the lie coming, and (2) Describe the lie to others so that they can be warned.

We Should Do All We Can to Silence the Teacher
In some ways the first two principles seem rather defensive, particularly when compared to the next set of principles which are a bit more aggressive and proactive when dealing with error. Paul asked his followers to do their best to stop false teaching by silencing the false teachers and denying them a platform from which to teach.

Titus 1:10-11
For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain.

2 John 9-11
Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.

We are called to (1) Understand how false teaching impacts believers and their families, (2) Recognize the worldly motives of false teachers, and then (3) Do all we can to these teachers the platform from which they can spread the lie.

We Should Refute the Teaching
But what do we do about those who have already gained a foothold in the Christian community teaching false ideas and doctrines? How are we to respond once the error has already started to permeate the Church? Paul tells his followers that they are to refute the lies. They are to identify and demonstrate why the false teaching is false, and then replace this false teaching with the truth. They are to do this in an emphatic and strong manner:

Titus 1:7-9
Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless-not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Titus 1:13
This testimony is true. For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith…

We are called to (1) Identify doctrinal errors and describe their false nature, (2) Strongly correct teachers who teach this kind of error, and (3) Replace the errors by describing the Biblical truth of the orthodox Christian Worldview.

We Should Avoid Those Who Continue to Follow or Teach the Lies
Even though we may make a dedicated effort to identify, call out, and refute false teaching and false teachers, many may still decide to follow lies, particularly if some worldly desire can be satisfied by accepting a lie. How are we to live in regard to people who either teach falsely or live according to false views? Well, according to Paul, we are to avoid people like this:

Ephesians 5:11-14
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.

Romans 16:17-18
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

2 Thessalonians 3:6
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

Titus 3:10-11
Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.

We are called to (1) Avoid those who have embraced false teaching, and (2) Warn and ultimately reject those who are false teachers. Paul is clear about how we are to treat those who are living according to false teaching. We are not to try to make peace with or embrace this kind of person or teaching. God calls us to separate from people who say they are Christians, but are following false teaching. That’s pretty severe, but it is what God clearly calls us to do if we are to take the words of Scripture seriously.

The Truth Matters to God
God is calling us to be very careful about Biblical truth. We must study the truth, then set careful boundaries so we will know when someone has crossed over into a lie or false teaching. God then wants us to deal strongly with those who are leading others astray. Why would God require us to be so harsh and judgmental? God calls His children to study, understand and defend the truth because the truth does matter to God. Faith, in and of itself, is not what God is looking for. It’s not enough to be sincere or intense. Faith, in and of itself, has no magic power. It’s a faithful, reasonable trust in the truth that matters to God. Trust placed in the correct and true God of the universe is what matters to God. That’s why God is so particular about truth and calls us to have an accurate understanding of who He is. And that’s why God has called us to treat heresy very seriously.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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